Tom O'Connor: Young crims on road to nowhere

Instead of prison, experts are calling for early intervention and rehabilitation for youth offenders.
PETER MEECHAM/ FAIRFAX NZ

Instead of prison, experts are calling for early intervention and rehabilitation for youth offenders.

OPINION: The clock is rapidly running down on a deadly time bomb among corner dairy owners and the youngsters who rob them.

In a recent case a Hamilton shopkeeper, who refused to hand over money to four robbers in Hamilton who were armed with an imitation firearm, was punched in the face. It is only a matter of time, and probably a very short time, before some young robber is permanently disabled or killed by one of their intended victims. When that bomb finally explodes, the frantic search for someone to blame in the fallout will engulf all of us.

While the law is lenient on offenders under 16, on the assumption that they don't fully understand the consequences of their actions, are we really dealing with naive kids here? Some have all the appearances of hardened criminals and it is highly unlikely that, by the time they get around to robbing a shop, it is their first offence.

Petty shoplifting and house burglaries seem to feature in the history of at least some of them in their pre-teen years. Other common denominators are a less than ideal home life, poor parenting, truancy from school, drugs, alcohol and tobacco.

In a tragic case two years ago, a 14-year-old boy was jailed for six years for the manslaughter of a dairy owner during a robbery. In handing down the sentence, the judge noted that the boy's mother had drank and taken drugs while pregnant and he suffered from foetal alcohol syndrome. He had also suffered a brain injury in a pedestrian crossing accident some years earlier. The judge also noted that, had it not been for his brain injury, he was convinced the jury would have found the boy guilty of murder.

It has never been unusual for young people, particularly but not exclusively boys, to engage in petty crime. In some communities it was almost expected that they would rob orchards, steal milk money from neighbours' gates and steal bicycles. Armed robberies, however, are in a very different category and require a very different solution and therein lies part of the problem.

Dr Nessa Lynch and Dr Katie Bruce, members of an expert advisory panel have asked the Government to raise the age of youth justice to include 17-year-olds and, in certain cases, 18- and 19-year-olds. They say that, while 17-year-olds do know the difference between right and wrong, science shows the frontal brain cortex isn't fully developed until they are about 25. They want more focus on intervention and rehabilitation. Given the youth of many offenders, the level of intervention required to be effective would probably be more intrusive than the community at large would be prepared to tolerate.

The suggestion of lifting the age for the Youth Court to 17 has not been well received by some in the community, particularly victims and their families, who want more police protection and harsh penalties to fit the crime, regardless of age or mitigating circumstances. That attitude is understandable when shopkeepers have been killed or seriously assaulted, families terrified, a shop smashed up and valuable stock stolen.

No matter which of those points of view we hold, it is an inescapable conclusion that, as a nation of parents, teachers and lawmakers we have collectively failed when we have to send a 14-year-old schoolboy to jail for robbing and killing a shopkeeper.

The huge majority of our youngsters grow into good citizens, even if they falter a few times on the pathway to adulthood. Armed robbery is not a minor falter on that pathway.

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There are, no doubt, many complex contributing factors which lead youngsters to commit armed robberies. One, however, which stands out from the rest is the increased tobacco tax which this National Government has applied with little thought to the consequences. With few exceptions, these young robbers are looking for cigarettes either for themselves or to fuel a predicted and growing black market.

Rather than arm themselves with potentially lethal weapons to fight off the robbers, perhaps corner dairy owners should simply stop selling cigarettes or establish a joint venture among themselves to sell tobacco co-operatively from a single central point with appropriate security systems in place.

If we can deal with drunk driving and family violence with effective, if long term, public campaigns, perhaps we should have a campaign to take away the temptation to rob a dairy for cigarettes … hopefully before that clock runs down and someone else gets killed.

 - Stuff

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